Understanding the appeal of conspiracy theories

Recognizing the factors that lead to a willingness to believe in conspiracy theories-including fear, uncertainty and mistrust-can help us deal with misinformation and how it spreads, says Augustana professor.

Tia Lalani - 19 May 2020

By Daniel Sims

Fear, uncertainty and a lack of trust and plausibility are all factors that could lead one to believe in conspiracy theories, especially around something as large and frightening as a global pandemic. Augustana professor Daniel Sims dives into how and why conspiracy theories may arise, and how understanding the impetus behind them can ultimately help combat misinformation. (Photo: Markus Spiske).

I imagine many of you have encountered somebody who espouses beliefs about COVID-19 that some would call conspiracy theories. It's easy to dismiss these individuals and stereotype them as crazy coots, instead of trying to understand why they think the way they do. Having taught cryptozoology (the study of animals rumored to exist, such as Bigfoot), and researched conspiracy theories, I can say that most academics have reached similar conclusions as to why some people believe weird things.

First, people hate uncertainty. Certainty provides safety and security in a dangerous and unpredictable world. People regularly encounter dangers that could harm or kill, and furthermore, we will die one day regardless of how well we take care of ourselves. For many, this reality is unsettling and difficult to deal with. As a result, we pretend these dangers do not exist or we minimize them. Pretending does not make them go away, but it can help.

Downplaying the dangers of COVID-19 is no different. Indeed, at its extreme, our hatred of the uncertain can result in a refusal to believe something like COVID is simply the random result of a virus crossing the species barrier. Instead, we might believe that it must be part of some larger plan. After all, if someone planned this pandemic then at least someone is in control, even if they have nefarious purposes.

Second, the transmission of information is dependent on trust. Examining what others have argued is an important part of the research process, but unless you are working with raw data or first-hand accounts, you are not conducting original research in the academic sense. If you are accepting the ideas of others or relying on evidence they have produced, you are still trusting someone else. While we reasonably expect experts to be right much more than they are wrong, trusting them is nonetheless an appeal to authority. We all know that sometimes experts can be wrong. So, what does this conundrum leave us with? Trust.

But trust has little to do with certainty. It is a leap of faith and sometimes it is misplaced. Trust is at least partially based on personal experience and since everyone's personal experience is different, who and what they trust will be different. Factor in confirmation bias and some people's tendency to overestimate their own cognitive capabilities, and it should come as no surprise that not everyone trusts the experts when it comes to COVID-19. It is not because they are uneducated or unable to critically analyze information, it is because they don't trust the experts informing them about COVID-19.

Finally, there is the matter of plausibility. As of the writing of this column, we still don't have an effective treatment or vaccine for those who become seriously ill due to COVID-19. The information we are receiving from the experts is an educated guess based on the best available information. Their messages are not conclusive, and, in fact, change frequently as they collect more data and information and whether we believe it is based not only on trust, but also on plausibility. Plausibility is based not only on the information provided but also on how we perceive it. Perception is more than just education and critical thinking. It is personal and based on our life experiences. For example, a recent conspiracy theory that the government intends to force everyone to get the vaccine, and receive the mark of the beast as proof, only makes sense if you know what the mark of the beast is and/or believe the beast is real and will take a physical form.

The combination of fear and uncertainty, a lack of trust in emerging information and experts and the plausibility of information all contribute to the willingness of people to believe in conspiracy theories. Only by recognizing these factors can we hope to deal with misinformation and how it spreads. Ridiculing and lecturing people does not work. Trying to understand how people think does.

Daniel Sims, History & Indigenous Studies, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.